Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.
A short disclaimer before I start writing this blog entry – I had not watched the Colin Farrell movie “In Bruges” before I visited the city itself. An oversight on my part which I have since corrected – it’s quite a funny film if you’re into dark humour, though quite graphic at parts. Colin Farrell’s character is equal parts likable and unlikable, and I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to kiss him or to hit him.
If you’ve seen the film, you’ll have a preconceived idea of Bruges. As Ralph Fiennes says in the film, “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? All those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fucking fairytale stuff…” Profanity aside, he’s fucking right.
Visiting Bruges does make you feel as though you’ve stepped back into another time where things are that slightly bit more magical, where Gaston might interrupt Belle reading by the canal, or Giuseppi might be carving another wooden puppet like Pinocchio in a little shop around the corner. The old medieval-era buildings along quiet canals where swans serenely swim by…it’s like a fairytale come true.
The only downside? Thanks to its beauty, Bruges has become a real destination for tourists wanting to experience traditional Belgium outside of Brussels. This means that almost everything in the city is geared towards tourists and tourism – restaurant pricing is inflated, there are souvenir and Belgian chocolate stores on every corner, and tourists easily outnumber locals.
Still, if you’re happy to stay away from the massive tour groups and walk your own path, there are some great places to explore while you’re in Bruges. We got there by train from Brussels, taking us about an hour and costing around $50 Euro (return) for the both of us. From the train station, it’s an easy walk of ten minutes into the old town, and you can pick up a free map of Bruges from the tourist centre at the train station to make navigating a little bit easier.
We made a decision to go on a quick half hour canal boat ride to get our bearings of the city and a quick history of Bruges from a local guide. The boat rides cost only about $8 Euro per person, no matter what company you go with. This allowed us to get a quick historical overview of important buildings as well as to see well-known Bruges sights such as the sleeping dog in the window (check out the photo gallery below!).
From the boat ride, we went on to the Grote Market where we quickly realised that all the restaurants around the square were overpriced, and while the exteriors of the buildings are gorgeous, they’ve been converted to house attractions like the “Historium Brugge” – fantastic for families with kids who are into fully interactive 3D experiences, but less exciting for two grown adults.
We moved away from the centre of Bruges then, walking the streets in the North-West and North of the city. There are a few tertiary institutions around that area, which means that many of the shops and cafes in the area cater more for young local students rather than tourists who don’t venture that far out. As a result, we got some delicious take-away lunch from a boulangerie in that area at reasonable local prices.
Returning to the centre of Bruges, we decided to go to two small museums featuring some of our favourite foods – the Frites Museum, and the Chocolate Museum. It costs about $14 Euro per person for a double ticket to both, and you do get some samples at the chocolate museum! It’s not fantastic value though – the exhibition and historical information at the Frites Museum is far superior to the Chocolate Museum which serves primarily as an advertisement for the Belgian chocolate couverture company Belcolade. I’d only recommend going if you were completely stuck for things to do in Bruges.
From there, we went and wandered around some of the narrower streets of the city, following canals where we could. There are some beautiful scenic spots to take photos and like most of the rest of Europe, a lot of churches as well. The buildings in the Burg square are particularly beautiful.
We snacked along the way of course, in addition to the lunch we got from the boulangerie. Belgian frites with mayonnaise of course, as well as a Belgian waffle topped with speculoos. I became highly addicted to speculoos while I was in Belgium!
Overall while Bruges is a spectacularly beautiful city, I do believe that it is becoming spoiled with an overload of tourists – you lose a certain charm or authenticity when tourists outnumber locals two to one. I was told by another Australian we met in Brussels that Ghent was similar to Bruges in its historical significance, and had the extra added benefit of being not as large a tourist destination. If we visit Belgium again in the future, I think we’ll have to daytrip to Ghent instead!